Valuable vintage papers on merits of “mundane science” in pursuing sustainable development

Two priceless papers on undervalued “applied” science, co-authored by Dan Kammen in the ’90s, still resonate today: “Science and Engineering Research That Values the Planet" (with Arne Jacobson) and "The Virtues of Mundane Science" (with Michael Dove). Here’s the conclusion of the "mundane" paper:

"There are a number of ways to give such initiatives a larger role in research and policy decisions. These include giving much more support to academic-industry and academic-practitioner partnerships; extending academic boundaries to encompass the entire range of human-environment interactions; breaking down the often antagonistic division between development professionals and academia; instituting a more open review process for development publications, projects, and institutions; removing the barrier between development planners and the intended beneficiaries or local populations; and addressing the frequently counterproductive tension between pure and applied research. The primary obstacles to implementing these proposals are cultural and institutional, not scientific. Expanding our commitment to mundane science requires that we overcome a Catch-22, however: Mundane issues generate little interest until a crisis emerges, at which point a solution is expected at once because the problem appears to be so simple. Unless we overcome the bias against mundane science, we will be wedded to shortsighted, partial solutions to emerging issues in development and the environment. Serious research requires a commitment to sustained periods of training, preparation, and support, which mundane science rarely receives. A valuable principle to use in the design and evaluation of sustainable development initiatives is that of use-inspired basic research, which – however basic the science involved – has a clear focus on applications…."

2014 @BuckyFullerInst Challenge Semi-Finalists Include:

  • Algal Turf Scrubbing generates a fast growing, easily harvested, filamentous polyculture of hundreds of natural, locally adapted algae species over a new, highly efficient 3D screen surface beneath a shallow flow of water to oxygenate and purify water, produce biomass for biofuel and organic fertilizer, mitigate pollution from agricultural run-off, improve freshwater and coastal habitats, and sequester carbon and reduce fossil fuel dependency.
  • AskNature is an immense, web-based interactive database, learning tool, and living Biomimicry encyclopedia, which seeks to catalog and propagate solutions to the most pressing human challenges by drawing from time-tested strategies evolved by nature. AskNature aspires to make biomimetic solutions widely accessible for educational and industrial applications.
  • Bonobo Peace Forest is growing a network of community-managed and protected forests in remote, immense swaths of rainforest in the Congo Basin, using a “viral” conservation strategy that partners with local indigenous peoples and the government to engender sustainable prosperity while preserving the habitat of our closest genetic relative, the endangered Bonobo.
  • Earth Roofs for the Sahel trains members of impoverished communities in Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region to build long-lasting, passively cooled earth buildings. The codified, traditional Egyptian Nubian Vault design creates an affordable, locally sourced, environmentally sustainable built environment; the construction training generates a self-replicating cadre of skilled masons throughout the region and engenders entrepreneurship. A self-sustaining, virally expanding market results, transforming the quality of life and economic capacity of communities.
  • Ecosoftt is an emerging Singapore and India-based social enterprise that is the first to develop decentralized, adaptable, chemical-free, cost-effective water systems that combine rainwater harvesting, wastewater recycling, groundwater replenishment and other technological innovations in Asia. Their systems are adaptable to both poor rural and prosperous urban contexts. They aim to revolutionize water systems throughout Asia and beyond, bring clean water to underserved communities and offer an inspiring model of social enterprise as an alternative to government or privately run water systems.
  • Finance Innovation Lab is a UK-based non-profit that aims to strategically shift the existing financial paradigm to one that values sustainability and resilience. The Lab works on the system from the bottom up by convening gatherings of innovators, nurturing entrepreneurs, encouraging alternative business models, and seeking to influence economic policies and financial regulation.
  • The Food Commons aims to transform local and regional food systems by creating larger, more highly organized and coordinated physical, financial, and organizational infrastructures for specific regions and connecting them to the global economy in order to boost and facilitate investments, encourage partnerships and cooperative ownership, and create a genuinely sustainable model of a local and global food economy.
  • The Force Majeure, a bold, large-scale vision of the deeply beloved and respected, world-renowned artists Helen and Newton Harrison, aims to reduce the entropy of planetary ecosystems in the face of human-induced climate change. Four sites have been proposed in which the Harrisons and scientists will experiment with methods to assist nature in its response to massive system disturbance.
  • Fuego Del Sol Haiti is a social enterprise that confronts Haiti’s deadly charcoal addiction through development, introduction and adoption of innovative ecological fuel briquettes, presses, stoves, and the training and empowerment of women. Fuego Del Sol, the largest upcycler in Haiti, also collects and separates a wide range of waste materials into sustainable products and plans to include farming, green building, and land reclamation.
  • Gardens for Health International, an NGO pioneering the integration of nutrition-based agriculture into the clinical care of malnutrition, partners with rural Rwandan health clinics to implement healthcare strategies that include nutritional education and the nurturing of home gardens of nutrient rich foods for each family. They are seeking to expand this program throughout Rwanda and into Uganda, Burundi, and beyond. This elegant model could be replicated globally to address malnutrition.
  • Health Promoter Practitioners seeks to transform conventional healthcare by training and empowering community members in the most remote, disrupted and underserved locales to take prevention and healing into their own hands and virally spread training in their regions. Disrupting the hegemonic concept of institutionally recognized healthcare, the organization has built local capacity, demonstrating that HPP-trained practitioners can treat 80% of primary medical cases. HPP is finalizing training manuals of best practices developed over four decades to disseminate their model.
  • International Bridges to Justice works tirelessly to abolish torture and assure fair judicial processes by strengthening existing legal systems worldwide. They offer in person and web-based trainings in international and local best practices and legal skills for attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officials, seek to nurture a global legal community that can be supportive and protective of lawyers and officials working in difficult contexts, and develop training modules in many languages to help propagate solid human rights-based legal knowledge.
  • International Youth Network for Food Security and Sovereignty trains rural youth in Mexico and Central America in a highly participatory process to develop sustainable food systems in their communities through social, ecological and technological innovation. With a broader goal of agro-ecological transformation across Central America and beyond, the network seeks to re-imbue communities with traditional ecological values while drawing from modern best practices. Trained and empowered youth leaders are the ideal vectors to propagate genuine sustainability.
  • Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic seeks to address the logistical problems of providing healthcare to communities in the highly underserved, infrastructure-poor Lake Tanganyika Basin region by building and deploying a floating medical and research facility. Through the growth of a radio network, collaboration with local partners, healthcare training, ecological education and more, the clinic will serve as a mobile hub of communication and cooperation between remote, vulnerable communities in one of the earth’s richest freshwater ecosystems.
  • Living Breakwaters is a comprehensive design for coastal resiliency along the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States and beyond. This approach to climate change adaptation and flood mitigation includes the deployment of innovative, layered ecologically-engineered concrete underwater breakwaters, the strengthening of biodiversity and coastal habitats, the nurturing and resuscitation of fisheries, and deep community engagement through diverse partnerships and innovative educational programs.
  • Makoko/Iwaya Waterfront Restoration Plan, a comprehensive, detailed regeneration plan for the Makoko/Iwaya community in Lagos, Nigeria, which was threatened with being razed, seeks to preserve local culture and social relationships, revitalize the built environment, increase economic opportunities, and ensure disaster resilience for over 40,000 residents. Its implementation revolves around community inclusion and local leadership and the empowering of women and youth. The plan holds the preservation of traditional lagoon-front culture as a core value, presenting a compelling vision of a floating economy based on sustainable aquaculture and tourism.
  • Multifunctional Membrane: Self-Active Building Cells, Not Building Blocks are the centerpieces of a technology that could potentially provide inexpensive, biodegradable, living, breathing “skins” for buildings that would auto-regulate in response to heat, light and humidity and provide climate control, ventilation and lighting without mechanical systems, thereby radically reducing energy use and costs, especially in tropical regions under critical environmental and socio-economic stresses.
  • Sistema Biobolsa provides farmers in Mexico, Central America and Haiti with an on-site waste-to-nutrient ecosystem: a biomimetic, modular advanced geo-membrane anaerobic biodigester that converts organic waste into biogas and fertilizer, increasing local capacity and resiliency and boosting health and livelihoods as it provides safe, non-toxic thermal, mechanical, and electrical generation not previously affordable to small farmers. Distributed through innovative micro-financing mechanisms and entrepreneurial capacity building, this project has great potential to boost sustainable farming globally.
  • Slow Money catalyzes the flow of investment capital into local food economies and place-based enterprises in North America and Europe, seeking to “bring money back down to earth” through communications, education, convenings, investment clubs, liaison services, and shared learning networks. This integrated effort to restore fiduciary responsibility and nurture sustainable enterprises aims for a systemic transformation of food systems and local economies.
  • Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Plan, born of a collective vision, has created a comprehensive plan to build a locally owned and operated development in the geographic center of the Oglala Lakota Nation, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest and most disenfranchised parts of the country. The goal is to resuscitate the local economy and traditional culture and provide attractive, culturally appropriate affordable housing in the context of a deeply sustainable community with a net-zero built environment that could serve as a compelling, dynamic model for the rest of Indian country and the world.

Key point in new @yaleclimatecomm paper on US climate activism: “The threat posed by climate change should continue to be a component of climate change messaging, but should be accompanied – and perhaps even preceded – by messages on effective actions individuals can take.”

After I pitched “boiler room tours” as path to energy literacy, @solaronenyc took me on one at NYC HS of Energy & Technology. More soon, including video, on Dot Earth!

After I pitched “boiler room tours” as path to energy literacy,  took me on one at NYC HS of Energy & Technology. More soon, including video, on Dot Earth!

Feelings, Facts, Food & GMOs – A Fresh Look  Weds, Feb. 26, 2014 12:00-2:00pm

The role of genetic engineering in agriculture is particularly contentious, with assertions about huge promise or perils often obscuring science. This panel discussion will aim to inform rather than inflame by bringing together a chef focused on conscious cuisine, a food journalist who spent six months investigating claims and counterclaims about GMOs, a law professor and a plant geneticist. The discussion will be moderated by Pace Academy Senior Fellow Andrew Revkin, who has explored the future of food repeatedly on his New York Times blog, Dot Earth.

The discussion will review the science on health and environmental questions, the legal issues related to food labeling and the realities of feeding not just a growing global population, but also one that is becoming more prosperous. 

Can GMOs be a part of our vision for a sustainable, equitable, and healthy world?

Free and open to the public.  Details online at www.pace.edu/foodyou.

In Person:  Pace University, 861, Bedford Road, Butcher Suite, Kessel Student Center, Pleasantville

Online:  Join us on Google+ or watch live or archive on YouTube.

Moderator:

Andrew Revkin - Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Pace University Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Dot Earth Blogger, The New York Times

Panelists:        

Shelley Boris - Executive Chef, Fresh Company, and author of “Fresh Cooking: A Year of Recipes from the Garrison Institute Kitchen”

Jason Czarnezki - Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, Pace Law School

Nathanael Johnson - Food and Environment Reporter, Grist.org

Pamela Ronald - Director, Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of “Tomorrow’sTable: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food”

Can’t wait to track onstage @greenbiz meetup of @Greenpeace & @AsianPulpPaper. (@DotEarth background on pulp fight.) Here’s what’s coming, via Joel @Makower:

The next GreenBiz Forum will examine ”how NGOs and companies interact, in a number of sessions. At the event, we’ll be launching the ‘GreenBiz NGO Report,’ the first annual rating by companies of environmental nonprofits. It will assess which ones are the most credible and the most effective, from the viewpoint of several hundred companies we’ve surveyed.

"We’ll bring that report to life with a panel featuring senior leaders at three NGOs spanning the spectrum of activism, from collaborative (Environmental Defense Fund) to confrontational (Greenpeace). There will also be a mainstage conversation among Asia Pulp & Paper, Greenpeace, and The Forest Trust, which culminated an adversarial campaign one year ago with a breakthrough agreement. (Learn more in this week’s Exit Interview with outgoing Greenpeace USA executive director Phil Radford.)

"There’s more: Neil Hawkins from Dow will discuss it’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy; separately, TNC’s head, Mark Tercek, will talk about its work with Dow and other companies on biodiversity and business opportunity. And a number of other sessions will feature NGO-company partnerships.

"Clearly, these relationships are going to be around for a while, so we might as well get good at them."

Revisiting @stevedavisUCI @kencaldeira CO2 outsourcing study via @andrereichel. ~11% US consumption-related emissions occur outside US borders; 33-50% for European countries.

@conservationorg map of marine hot zones where human pressure & biodiversity clash (orange). The paper.

@conservationorg map of marine hot zones where human pressure & biodiversity clash (orange). The paper.

Is “overshoot” view of humanity’s global ecological footprint overblown? @theBTI & @EndOvershoot @PLOSbiology debate: 
Paper 1: “Does the Shoe Fit? Real versus Imagined Ecological Footprints”
Linus Blomqvist, Barry W. Brook, Erle C. Ellis, Peter M. Kareiva, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger
Rebuttal: “The Shoe Fits, but the Footprint is Larger than Earth”
William E. Rees, Mathis Wackernagel
Despite Blomqvist et al.’s reservations, Footprint results show that: (1) most countries are in ecological deficit, increasingly dependent on potentially unreliable trade in biocapacity; (2) humanity is at or beyond global carrying capacity for key categories of consumption, particularly agriculture (factoring in soil loss and ecosystem degradation would reveal additional deficits); (3) global carbon waste sinks are overflowing; and (4) the aggregate metabolism of the human economy exceeds the regenerative capacity of the ecosphere (and the ratio is increasing). Significantly, Blomqvist et al. indirectly suggest several globally relevant policies to improve Footprint accounts and to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. How, in this light, the authors of the Perspective can conclude that the results of Footprint estimates are “…so misleading as to preclude their use in any serious science or policy context” remains unclear. What could we possibly gain by ignoring Footprint assessments in national and global policy-making?
Response: “The Ecological Footprint Remains a Misleading Metric of Global Sustainability”
 The Formal Comment by Rees and Wackernagel [1] raises our concern that this exchange will confuse readers. For this reason, we aim to emphasize a few key points that we believe cannot be disputed. First, the entire global ecological overshoot (footprint of consumption in excess of biocapacity) results from carbon dioxide emissions reframed as the hypothetical forest area needed to offset these emissions. Plantations of fast-growing trees would, by-the-numbers, eliminate the global overshoot. Second, the ecological footprint’s (EF) assessments for cropland, grazing land, and built-up land are unable to capture degradation or unsustainable use of any kind. Finally, we conclude from the above and the points made in our original paper [2] that we would be better off discussing greenhouse gas emissions directly in terms of tons of CO-equivalent (and thus focus on solutions to emissions), and developing a more ecological and ecosystem process framework to capture the impacts humans currently have on the planet’s natural systems. The appropriate scale for these indicators will, in many cases, be local and regional. At this level, the EF is a measure of net exports or imports of biomass and carbon-absorptive capacity [3]. Any city, for example, would show a deficit, as it relies on food and materials from outside. That in itself, as Robert Costanza has noted, “tells us little if anything about the sustainability of this input [from outside the region] over time” [4].

Is “overshoot” view of humanity’s global ecological footprint overblown? @theBTI & @EndOvershoot @PLOSbiology debate: 

Paper 1: “Does the Shoe Fit? Real versus Imagined Ecological Footprints

Linus Blomqvist, Barry W. Brook, Erle C. Ellis, Peter M. Kareiva, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger

Rebuttal: “The Shoe Fits, but the Footprint is Larger than Earth

William E. Rees, Mathis Wackernagel

Despite Blomqvist et al.’s reservations, Footprint results show that: (1) most countries are in ecological deficit, increasingly dependent on potentially unreliable trade in biocapacity; (2) humanity is at or beyond global carrying capacity for key categories of consumption, particularly agriculture (factoring in soil loss and ecosystem degradation would reveal additional deficits); (3) global carbon waste sinks are overflowing; and (4) the aggregate metabolism of the human economy exceeds the regenerative capacity of the ecosphere (and the ratio is increasing). Significantly, Blomqvist et al. indirectly suggest several globally relevant policies to improve Footprint accounts and to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint. How, in this light, the authors of the Perspective can conclude that the results of Footprint estimates are “…so misleading as to preclude their use in any serious science or policy context” remains unclear. What could we possibly gain by ignoring Footprint assessments in national and global policy-making?

Response: “The Ecological Footprint Remains a Misleading Metric of Global Sustainability

 The Formal Comment by Rees and Wackernagel [1] raises our concern that this exchange will confuse readers. For this reason, we aim to emphasize a few key points that we believe cannot be disputed. First, the entire global ecological overshoot (footprint of consumption in excess of biocapacity) results from carbon dioxide emissions reframed as the hypothetical forest area needed to offset these emissions. Plantations of fast-growing trees would, by-the-numbers, eliminate the global overshoot. Second, the ecological footprint’s (EF) assessments for cropland, grazing land, and built-up land are unable to capture degradation or unsustainable use of any kind. Finally, we conclude from the above and the points made in our original paper [2] that we would be better off discussing greenhouse gas emissions directly in terms of tons of CO-equivalent (and thus focus on solutions to emissions), and developing a more ecological and ecosystem process framework to capture the impacts humans currently have on the planet’s natural systems. The appropriate scale for these indicators will, in many cases, be local and regional. At this level, the EF is a measure of net exports or imports of biomass and carbon-absorptive capacity [3]. Any city, for example, would show a deficit, as it relies on food and materials from outside. That in itself, as Robert Costanza has noted, “tells us little if anything about the sustainability of this input [from outside the region] over time” [4].

A useful @NASciences report on need for US National Sustainability Policy with “steps to encourage federal agencies to collaborate on sustainability challenges that demand the expertise of many agencies, such as improving disaster resilience and managing ecosystems.”

A new report from the National Research Council. MORE: 

 

Currently, the government is generally not organized to deal with the complex, long-term nature of sustainability challenges, the report says.  Statutes and government culture encourage agencies to focus on a single area — energy, water, or health, for example — with little attention to how areas affect one another.  This “stovepipe” or “silo” effect makes it difficult to address issues that cut across agency boundaries.  

 

The federal government should take steps to help build linkages among agencies and stakeholders outside government to address these challenges, the report says.  A National Sustainability Policy, developed with input from agencies, NGOs, and the private sector, could help surmount obstructions and enable initiatives that cut across agency jurisdictions.  The policy would establish the principles of promoting the long-term sustainability of the nation’s economy, natural resources, and social well-being.  It should set out broad general objectives, management principles, and a framework for addressing complex issues.  Several models exist for such a policy, including the National Oceans Policy, which was created in 2010 through an executive order to guide management decisions with the goal of protecting the nation’s coasts.  Once a National Sustainability Policy is in place, agencies should develop specific plans that define how they expect to implement it.

 

The report offers a decision-making framework that can be applied to sustainability-related projects and programs.  The framework can help agencies identify and enlist other agencies and private stakeholders that should be involved.  Given the inherent complexities and uncertainties of many sustainability issues, strategies may need to be altered based on emerging results; the framework builds in an “adaptive management” approach that allows for these adjustments.

 

Although the framework can be applied to many sustainability challenges, the committee that wrote the report identified four challenges of national importance that should be top priorities: 

 

§  Connections among energy, food and water. Producing and using energy often consumes water and can also impact water quality, air quality, land use, and the agricultural sector.  For example, intensive production of corn for ethanol requires water for irrigation, and chemical fertilizers that are heavily applied to corn run off into rivers and become a major source of pollution.

§  Diverse and healthy ecosystems. Ecosystems, which are affected by the actions of many agencies, provide services to human communities — such as water supplies, coastal storm buffers, productive fisheries, and pollination of food crops.

§  Resilience of communities to natural disasters and other extreme events.Improving the sustainability of communities means identifying their vulnerabilities and enhancing their resilience to catastrophic events — such as earthquakes or terrorist attacks — as well as to more gradual processes, such as climate change.

§  Human health and well-being. Sustainability efforts may affect human health and well-being in complex, crosscutting ways.  For example, agricultural practices affect the nutritional content and contaminant levels in food, as well as food’s availability and price, and land use and transportation decisions affect levels of physical activity, which in turn affect the risk for cardiovascular disease, many cancers, and other conditions.

 

The report also recommends that the federal government offer incentives to its employees to collaborate across agency boundaries.  Agencies should nurture “change agents” both in the field and at regional and national offices, an effort that may include revisions to managers’ performance plans, rewards, and training.  Similarly, agencies should encourage and enable cross-agency management and funding of linked sustainability activities; in some cases, changes in statutory authority may be needed to do so.

 

Because sustainability challenges play out over long time scales, agencies should invest in long-term research projects to provide the scientific understanding needed to inform strategies, the report says.  Agencies should collaborate to design and implement cross-agency research portfolios in order to better leverage funding.

 

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, BP, Lockheed Martin, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

 

Report Summary

Project Website